Clifts Plantation (44WM33)


Aerial view of the Clifts Plantation shoreline (Courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library, Stratford Hall)

The Clifts Plantation site (44WM33) is located in Westmoreland County, Virginia on land patented by Nathaniel Pope in 1651 and first occupied by tenants two decades later. Their seventy-year occupation is characterized by rich archaeological evidence, but an unusual documentary silence. In 1713, the Lee family purchased the property on which the Clifts was located, and incorporated it into their family plantation. About 1730, the Lees started construction on their large H-shaped Georgian mansion, known as Stratford Hall, a quarter of a mile from the site. The construction of Stratford Hall coincides with the abandonment of the Clifts.

The site is best known as one of two fortified 17th-century domestic compounds excavated on the Northern Neck, the other being the Hallowes site (44WM6), located less than five miles to the east on Currioman Bay. The original dwelling at the Clifts is surrounded by a palisade with circular bastions dating to the period of Bacon's Rebellion. The fortification was temporary, and a complex curtilage that included a quarter, barn, cellared building, dairy, and a number of smokehouses emerged over time. Concurrent with the construction of these buildings was the development of a highly structured landscape, one of the earliest and best documented examples of the use of dynamic symmetry and perspective in the Chesapeake. The site is also significant for the excavation of a cemetery that bounded the eastern edge of the domestic core. It contained the remains of site tenants, enslaved Africans, and indentured servants. The cemetery has provided important information about plantation demographics, health, and mortuary practices.

The tenants, who remain unidentified, were unusual for the time. By the fourth quarter of the 17th-century, tenancy was becoming lifelong. A shortage of available land in the lower Tidewater made it nearly impossible to become a freeholder for those unwilling to move to the frontier. Tenancy agreements typically lasted for three of the owners' lifetimes (the planter, his wife, and his heir), as appears to be the case at Clifts given the long occupancy of the site and evidence that the manor house and its outbuildings were improved through several episodes of alterations. The demography of the site, as well as its architecture, landscape, and artifacts indicate that the tenants at the Clifts, though landless, were materially well off.

Archaeological Investigations

Clifts Plantation Principal Investigator Fraser D. Neiman (Courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library, Stratford Hall)

The Clifts Plantation was first identified in the 1960s when members of the Archeological Society of Virginia surface-collected the area. In 1972, a group of avocational archaeologists excavated parts of the site, including a brick-lined cellar associated with the manor house and several trash pits, with little attention paid to provenience. They also dug trenches across the site in search of structural foundations. The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association subsequently hired Fraser Neiman to fully investigate the site in 1976. Neiman and his crew excavated the Clifts site intensively during two field seasons between June 1976 and January 1978.

Under Neiman's supervision, 124 10-by-10-foot test units were excavated over the core of the site and an additional eight 10-by-10-foot units were placed randomly to sample the outlying portions of the site. All excavated plow zone was screened through ¼-inch mesh. Following the plow zone sampling, the remaining plow zone was mechanically stripped from the site to expose features. All features were recorded, mapped, and excavated by hand following natural and stratigraphic units; all feature sediments were screened through ¼-inch mesh and sediment samples were taken for flotation and chemical analysis. Neiman conducted the majority of the artifact analysis; Lawrence Angel conducted the bioarchaeological analysis and Joanne Bowen undertook the faunal analysis.

Aerial view of the Clifts Plantation features (Courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library, Stratford Hall)

Neiman's investigations revealed a large domestic core consisting of 15 structures, several landscape features, trash pits, and a cemetery. Neiman phased the site into four time periods based on TPQs and presence/absence seriation using ceramics. The phases calculated by Neiman are: Phase I: 1670-1685, Phase II: 1685-1705, Phase III: 1705-1715, and Phase IV: 1720-1730.

During the initial phase of occupation, the domestic complex included an earthfast dwelling measuring 18.5 by 41 feet with a 12-by-15-foot addition on the north, an 8.5-by-9.5-foot porch on the south façade, and a 5-by-9-foot shed on the east gable end. The main dwelling had an off-center central chimney that divided the house into three parts: a hall, chamber, and cross passage. An 18.5-by-25-foot post-in-ground servants' quarter was located 40 feet southwest of the dwelling.

The manor house was surrounded by a ditch-set palisade with opposing circular bastions on the northwest and southeast corners. The west palisade line extended past the southwest corner of the enclosure and connected to the quarter. Residents of the site likely erected this defensive structure in response to raids in the area by Susquehannock and Doeg Indians preceding and during Bacon's Rebellion. The palisade did not stand long and was dismantled by the start of Phase II. One to two other outbuildings, likely smokehouses, were also standing during Phase I.

The cemetery was established to the east of the main dwelling during Phase I and continued to be used into the 18th century. People were buried in two groups, those of European descent to the north and those of African descent to the south, indicating that distinctions were made between free and enslaved occupants of Clifts Plantation.

During Phase II, the manor house was repaired and updated. The original smokehouses were replaced with two new outbuildings. A new worm or Virginia-style fence encircled the manor house and quarter. A 16.5-by-20-foot cellared building located to the south of the manor house was also built during this phase.

The landscape at Clifts Plantation was dramatically altered at the turn of the century. During Phase III, the layout of the manor house shifted from a cross-passage to front entrance style home. A new 19-by-36-foot slave quarter was built along with five other outbuildings including a diary. An orchard and garden were planted to the east of the house. Ditch-set fences subdivided the home lot into discrete activity areas. During Phase IV, these fences were replaced with post-and-rail fences, and the placement of the lines became increasingly more complex. Additionally, three more buildings were constructed.

Troweling units at the Clifts Plantation (Courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library, Stratford Hall)
Excavations at the Clifts Plantation (Courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library, Stratford Hall)
Cellar with brick lining, Clifts Plantation (Courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library, Stratford Hall)


Over 100,000 artifacts were recovered from the Clifts, of which approximately 43,000 were from phased features. Of the nearly 5,000 ceramic sherds recovered, the most prevalent types are tin-glazed earthenware, Buckley ware, English Brown stoneware, Morgan Jones earthenware, North Devon sgraffito and gravel-tempered, Nottingham stoneware, Rhenish blue and gray stoneware, Staffordshire Brown, and white salt-glazed stoneware. Forty-one pieces of colonoware were also found as well as two fragments of Iberian ware. Brad Hatch has included the ceramics and faunal remains from the site in his study of changing ideas about manhood during the early modern period in the Potomac Valley.

The tobacco pipe assemblage included 31,434 pipes found during Neiman's excavations, of which 216 were locally-made. Lauren McMillan included an analysis of the tobacco pipe fragments found in two features at the Clifts, including Trash Pit 1 (255B-T) and the second quarter cellar in her study of trade, identity, community formation, and pipes in the Potomac Valley.

Small finds include 28 bale seals used to identify textiles and parcels of trade goods. Four Spanish coins were recovered as well as a number of horse-related artifacts including bits, bridle bosses, buckles, leather ornaments, spurs, and stirrups. A large quantity of lead shot and gunflints was also recovered. Items relating to clothing and adornment include buttons, beads and buckles, a cufflink and a chatelaine with iron scissors and a silver heart charm attached. A single bone die and 12 bone comb fragments, from both double- and single-edged combs, were found.

The diverse faunal assemblage recovered from the Clifts plantation includes domesticates such as cattle, pigs and sheep; wild mammals including deer, raccoon, opossums, squirrels; domestic and wild birds including goose, turkey, chicken, and bobwhite; bony fishes, and commensal species such as horse, dog, and cat. Brad Hatch includes fauna from the first three phases of occupation at the Clifts in his discussion of foodways and masculinity in the early modern Potomac River Valley.


Angel, Lawrence. 1980. Family Skeletons from Clifts Plantation. Appendix III in Field Archaeology of the Clifts Plantation Site, Westmoreland County, Virginia by Fraser D. Neiman. Report to the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Inc., Stratford, VA.

Aufderheide, Arthur C., Fraser D. Neiman, Lorentz E. Wittmers, and George Rapp. 1981. Lead in Bone II: Skeletal-Lead Content as an Indicator of Lifetime Lead Ingestion and the Social Correlates in an Archaeological Population. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 55:285-291.

Bowen, Joanne V. 1980. Analysis of the Faunal Remains from Clifts Plantation. Appendix II in Field Archaeology of the Clifts Plantation Site, Westmoreland County, Virginia by Fraser D. Neiman. Report to The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Inc., Stratford, VA.

Hatch, D. Brad. 2015. An Historical Archaeology of Early Modern Manhood in the Potomac River Valley of Virginia, 1645-1730. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Heath, Barbara J. in press. Dynamic Landscapes: The Emergence of Formal Spaces in the Chesapeake. Historical Archaeology.

Library of Virginia [LOV] 1661-1662 Westmoreland County Deeds, Wills, Etc., microfilm reel 1. Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

McMillan, Lauren. 2015. Politics, Conflict, and Exchange in the Chesapeake: An Archaeological and Historical Study of the Tobacco Pipe Trade in the Potomac Valley, ca. 1630-1730. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Neiman, Fraser D. 1980. Field Archaeology of the Clifts Plantation Site, Westmoreland County, Virginia. Report to The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Inc., Stratford, VA.

Neiman, Fraser D. 1980. The Manner House Before Stratford: Discovering the Clifts Plantation. Edited by Alonzo T. Dill. A Stratford Handbook, Stratford, VA.

Neiman, Fraser D. 1986. Domestic Architecture at the Clifts Plantation, The Social Context of Early Virginia Building. In Common Places, Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, Dell Upton and John Vlach, editors, pp. 292-314. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA.

Neiman, Fraser D. 1990. An evolutionary approach to archaeological inference: Aspects of archaeological variation in the 17th-century Chesapeake. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Yale University. UMI International, Ann Arbor, MI.

Toner, Joseph M. 1891. Wills of the American Ancestors of General George Washington. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 45:199-215.

Walsh, Lorena S. 1985. Land, Landlord, and Leaseholder: Estate Management and Tenant Fortunes in Southern Maryland, 1642-1820. Agricultural History 59(3):373-396.

What You Need To Know To Use This Collection

The Clifts data was previously entered into the database found on the Colonial Chesapeake Cultures website and copied into the Colonial Encounters database. Catalog information was taken from a paper catalog and this catalog is available on this site as a PDF file. The catalog is organized by test unit and, within test unit, by layer.

Fraser Neiman has previously phased contexts at the Clifts Plantation and researchers are encouraged to find those phases in the site report found on this web site.

Further Information About the Collection

The Clifts Plantation collection is owned by Robert E. Lee Memorial Association and curated at Stratford Plantation. For more information about the collection and collection access, contact Judy Hynson, Director of Research and Library Collections at 804-493-1940; email

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